I have 401 unread text messages on my phone. I never notice that number. Occasionally, someone will glance at my phone and see it. They are flabbergasted. "How do you live that way?" I am not exactly sure how it happened. I think I read some one liners without opening them. Group texts have definitely contributed to the excess. Most of the messages are irrelevant and out of date at this point. It is a textual wasteland.
I am old enough to remember when the family shared one rotary phone. We raced to answer the ring hoping it would be our friend on the other end. There was also the risk we could be blindsided by a distant relative who might hold us hostage on the phone for hours. “Is this a good time to talk?” We were concerned about intruding or interrupting the other person’s life.
Next, we started using voicemail to screen our calls. It provided time to gather our thoughts and process the message. Caller ID gave us the ability to peer unnoticed through the phone lines and determine our next plan of action - answer or ignore the call. We decided when and how we responded or engaged.
Then along came texting, and it was a game changer. When my children were babies, texting kept me sane. I could not talk on the phone without being interrupted or risking my kids creating a disaster for me to later clean up, but texting kept me in the loop. I could follow a train of thought because the words were typed right in front of me. Texting with friends through the trenches of new motherhood kept me from feeling lonely or isolated. I always had a line of support in my pocket.
Fast forward ten years and my tune has changed when it comes to texting. There is no denying the practicality of it. I can get a quick response and cut right to the chase without a need for small talk. It is direct and efficient. However, at some point I started to view it as intrusive.
Where else in life would I expect that I could pop into someone’s life at any time and demand immediate attention? And don’t we all assume that texting has the quickest response time? Most of us think that if we text, rather than call or email (does anyone ever call anymore?), we can expect to hear back almost instantly. Texting keeps us connected to friends, family or coworkers all day, every day, any time of the day - whether they like it or not.
However, I started to notice a definite downside to this increased connectivity. Every time I stop to respond to a text or check my phone, I am immediately pulled away from the present moment.
Here is an example:
Friday night family movie night - the family is curled up on the couch watching a classic film on Netflix. While my body is present in the room, my mind could be pulled in a million different directions by following the textual breadcrumb trail:
Friend: “I’m swimsuit shopping and I hate everyone.”
Workout Partner: “What is the workout tomorrow?”
Carpooler: “We will be there at 9:30.”
Coworker: “Did you see the email about the division meeting?”
Dad: “Your mom had a pretty good day today.”
Friend: “Do you have a recipe for spaghetti squash?”
Coworker: “Have you scheduled the next round of fundamentals?”
Friend: “All I want to do is eat Mexican food and take naps.” (We all have that one friend).
All of these texts represent valid discussions I would be willing to have with any of these people, but perhaps not during family movie night. How could I possibly enjoy the moment happening right in front of me with all those distractions? Trying to keep up with the various threads leaves me feeling like a browser with way too many windows open. I’m overloaded and distracted.
Limiting the time I spend "instantly" messaging prioritizes quality over quantity and allows for deeper, more meaningful conversations. While the goal of texting is to keep people connected, that plan can easily backfire. I would rather have quality moments of direct human connection -- cups of coffee with friends, walks with my husband or dinner conversation with my kids. Face to face interaction offers a level of intimacy that is lost in the glare of a screen.
I have started to make this realization in most areas of my life. I love my friends and family dearly, but I want to keep space and boundaries clearly defined. I want my mind to be with me wherever I am at that moment. As a result, I save texts and respond at a time when I can devote my attention to the messages. I have relieved myself from a feeling of urgency. Just as my voicemail prompts people to leave a message and lets them know I will get back to them, the same can be true of my texts. I will get back to you. It might be today, tomorrow, or the next time I see you, depending on the level of urgency. My delay could seem rude for people wanting an immediate response, but people around me deserve my attention rather than a scattered, zoned out version of me staring at my phone.